CD: John, many thanks for agreeing to be a part of the FUSEVISUAL Project. I’ve been looking forward to this one for quite a while. We’ve known each other for years but I expect that most people do not know that you are Native-American. Lets start there: tell us a bit about your family history, the tribe, your connections, and a bit about the three books you have photographed for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
John Harrington: Wow, okay. It’s a very personal and private side of me, largely because I don’t expect anyone to consider it relative to the work I do, any more than I do because I’m 6’7”, or left-handed. My great great grandfather, Chief George Harney, was the last hereditary Chief of our tribe - The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, located on the southern coast of Oregon. My grandmother, Agnes Pilgrim, a medicine woman, is the chairwoman of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, and my father is not only the hereditary chief of our tribe, but also is the Chief of the Longhorn clan of the Blackfoot tribe in Canada. It has been made clear to me I will have responsibilities in the future along these lines. The weight of these things does weigh on my mind often.
It’s funny, though, that you started with this question, and then dovetailed this into a question about my work with the NMAI. I say this because when I first got a call, out of the blue, from them in about 2001. The person who called started off the conversation by asking if I was a photographer, then asking if I was Native-American, and then re-asking if I was actually a full time professional photographer. At this point, I asked why she kept asking that. She told me “well, we know all the professional Native American photographers, and we haven’t heard of you before – why haven’t you come to us at the Museum to work with us?” and I responded “well, I haven’t had a project I thought I should bring to you, and I certainly didn’t expect it would be appropriate to turn up and expect you to give me assignments just because I was Native American.”
Soon thereafter, I was invited in for a meeting to show my portfolio, and talk about projects. Near the end of the meeting, the conversation about copyright to the photos came about. The museum stated that they needed to own the copyright to the images. I paused, thought for a moment, and responded “this is somewhat similar to the government of years’ past taking away the property of Native Americans without reasonable compensation, and that doesn’t seem fair now either.” There was a pregnant pause on the other side of the table while the point that was just made sank in. In the end, that didn’t happen, but we were both very happy with the arrangement, and the “My World” series of books was born, where I was the photographer for them and each book had a different author. For the three books, we travelled to Maryland, Arizona, and Alaska. They were amazing projects, and I really felt very free to work like I had not ever done in the past. I’d love to do more projects like that in the future.
CD: Speaking of books, for many years you have been active within industry trade organizations plus blogging and teaching about best business practices for working photographers. Your newest book, MORE Best Business Practices for Photographers was recently released. Tell us a bit about what drives you to care so much about the industry and what your goals are for the book.
John Harrington: When I started out, things related to the business side of photography were seemingly held as closely as the nuclear launch codes – no one would talk about them. In fact, most assistants I spoke with said that even the photographers they worked for regularly wouldn’t talk about pricing or contracts, but would talk about anything else. As I started freelancing, I tried in vain to get people to tell me how to price a job, or how to write a contract. I’m showing my age here, but this was about 8 years before Google even existed, and the resources that are available now - not only via the internet but also in various books - just didn’t exist, and it was very frustrating. As I was trying to figure out what I was worth as a freelancer for the various types of photo shoots, I also did not want to come into the market and undersell an existing market range for rates, nor did I want to embarrassingly overprice myself and have people laugh at my rates!
I decided that I would spend a lot of my time looking into all of these things – researching general business principles, practices, and so on. Much of the insights weren’t initially gleaned from photography businesses, but general business practices and principles. I then started to piece together pricing details. I made a lot of mistakes early on – for example, in my early contracts I hadn’t spelled out the fees/charges for additional rolls of film if we went over, and I also never spelled out how long after I invoiced the client was my bill needed to be paid. Many of the terms in my contract are there as a result of a mistake I made and resolved for future work by putting the issues in writing. An early portrait session for one executive that had a timeframe blocked out of an hour turned into a session for 6 during the same timeframe, and then the client didn’t understand why there was an additional charge – “we didn’t go over on our time!” was the response. That didn’t happen again.
The amazing thing was, however, that as soon as I started being very public and sharing my pricing, people started sharing back. I recall on my earliest website I had my prices listed, and I learned that myself and Seth Resnick were the only photographers anyone could find that would list their prices – this was back around 1998 or so. I then started doing presentations to ASMP chapters about these matters. In 2000 as I was changing from shooting film to digital, I was concerned about taking losses on the pricing of the future work that would be shot digitally. As a result, I analyzed my past 6 months of photography analog assignments and came up with a pricing structure that allowed for a 10% premium for digital work. I put it out as a white paper and it was picked up by PDN, the ASMP Bulletin, and emailed around to anyone who had an email address (which wasn’t everyone at that time.) I continued to make presentations around the country to anyone who would listen – ASMP chapters, the NPPA’s Northern Short Course, PhotoPlus Expo, and so on. The idea of giving back became more and more important to me. I lived the mindset of “Pay it Forward”, ending every presentation with that phrase. Recently, I was at a lecture given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson , who put very succinctly this attitude. He said “We are not who we say we are or who we want to be. We are the sum of our impact on others.” I genuinely believe that.
The first book, Best Business Practices for Photographers came about in 2006, and it was revised in 2009. Little has changed in those best practices, so the new book is an expansion of that – MORE Best Business Practices for Photographers. It’s a mistake to think this is a “new edition” – it’s all new, truly a “Volume 2” in the series with all new content. There are several goals in this book – the first was to answer all the questions I’ve gotten from people I have presented to around the country. Addressing things like social media strategies and etiquette as well as rights issues. How to price and work with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and using the online Copyright Office registration website (eCO) effectively. However, I’d say probably the biggest thing this book does is further a project I have been working on almost since the last book was published, and that is how to transition and price the transition from still photography to motion.
For about 5 years I have been meaning to do a white paper on that topic, and the need for it has grown more and more since then. During that time, as I have encountered friends and colleagues who have successfully made that expansion in their own businesses, I asked if they would be willing to review and comment on what I was working on, and they were all very gracious in agreeing to do so. The original chapter expanded from about 30 pages to 50 pages once I was able to incorporate their ideas and questions into this final book. I hope that this chapter really helps those that are now starting to get those questions about doing motion along with their still work. I know that even some of those that provided feedback said to me that just reading the chapter helped them to work on jobs even before the book and chapter had taken final shape. So, the goal of helping people and making a positive impact on others seems to be heading in the right direction.
CD: You started out in photojournalism and editorial. Tell us a bit about how you came to photography. What was the most memorable shoot from the early years at a newspaper followed by a recent shoot that stands out.
John Harrington: My first experience semi-professional experience was as the Photo Editor of my college newspaper, The Tower. I had worked earlier on school yearbooks in middle school and high school, largely through a budding interest in photography as had been introduced to me by my father. However, the Tower came with a tuition abatement, but unfortunately, I had to forgo that because I already had that as I was also a Resident Assistant in a school dormitory. One other problem was that it seemed I was not supposed to do both the RA job and any other campus job at the same time. So, my Editor in Chief allowed me to do the entire year under a pseudonym. That followed on the next year to being a Photo Editor of the school yearbook, and freelancing work with the school’s staff photographer too. One of my professors was an editor at a magazine in DC – The World&I, and he agreed to introduce me to the Photo Editor there. As a result, I freelanced for them during college, and then the opportunity to become staff for them came about, and in 1990 I became staff. With my own studio, darkroom, color and black and white lab, large, medium, and 35mm format cameras and a full collection of lighting equipment at my disposal, I started learning how to use all that equipment – some on my own, some asking friends for help, and so on. I didn’t actually have a degree in photography, or even any formal training in it, so there was a lot to learn.
Asking someone what their most memorable shoot was is like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite. How do you answer that? I did write a book listing about 40 a few years ago, Photographs from the Edge of Reality. I served as President of the White House News Photographers Association for two terms, and I think the privilege of being, what the motto of the WHNPA is – “the Eyes of History”, really does apply to what we as photojournalists when covering the White House (and the rest of DC for that matter) do. Yet that’s just a part of what I do. I know you’re an aerial photographer, and one of my most memorable projects came up unexpectedly. A defense contractor needed some photographs of people experiencing the next Marine One helicopter. Then, unexpectedly, I was up in the air with two of them – one as the lead camera platform, the other as the hero aircraft. The result was an ad campaign, and then we repeated it again for the cover of Rotor & Wing magazine. I’d say that one is right up there among my favorites.
A recent shoot that stands out was what was supposed to be a routine day at the White House. There were two events at the White House on the schedule – one was when the President was honoring the Superbowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, as a result of their win. The other was a scheduled brief motorcade trip to the Department of the Interior for a bill signing. The trip to the Department of the Interior was anything but routine. As we were heading to the motorcade, we were told the President decided he wanted to walk the trip. Here’s a thing to note – the President doesn’t just “decide” to take a walk, it’s a massively orchestrated event, and these things almost never happen. Yet he, and one of his advisors, were set to stroll from the White House, around the Ellipse just South of the White House, and then up the street between two buildings, and then to the DOI. I was among the four still photographers making the walk with him. While the likelihood of any type of an “incident” was very low, as a member of the press corps, should anything happen, it would be my responsibility to document it. The walk to, and then again, unexpectedly, from, DOI, was (thankfully) uneventful, but this particular shoot is definitely one that “stands out."
CD: You have a strong social media presence and embraced its possibilities early on. What have you done that is positive and what would you do differently now?
John Harrington: My social media presence is only a few thousand folks, but, well, according to my friend David Hobby (of Strobist fame), it’s quality not quantity, and I’m okay on that front, so says he. Yet today, so many people do actually pay attention to how many followers you have, and it’s amazing to look at people with 10k, 37k, and so on as the number of followers they have. I see my twitter/facebook “followers”/”friends” as an extension of the “pay it forward” approach. I try to share out things that will help or enlighten others. Sometimes it’s a commentary on an issue, other times, there’s no reason why I should re-invent the wheel if it’s been said well by someone else, so it’s easy to just re-tweet the link and message.
I think about the only thing I might do differently now is to have watermarked every single image I put up. All my twitter and facebook images now get posted via a really cool website called ProPic, that adds in a copyright line and the app that feeds the images to ProPic is called Process. I did a “how to” on my blog about this awhile back (link: here?) and they don’t take your rights and have a lot of cool embedding and sharing tools. As to what I might go back and do differently, If I could go back and re-post images with my watermark and copyright notice, I would, but I would loose comments and so on so that was a lesson learned.
CD: What personal or long-term photography projects are you working on?
John Harrington: I know that everyone says you’re supposed to have these projects, but, well, I don’t. At least not that I think of them as in that manner. My work surely keeps me busy, and my family as well. Add in the books, and doing presentations on the same “business practices” topic, and then fielding the frequent calls and emails to help folks out, and my plate is pretty full. I have in my head a phantom assignment I received about 20 years ago from Sue Smith when she was at National Geographic, and somehow I managed an in person portfolio review with her (I look back at that now, and still have no idea how that came to be). It wasn’t an official assignment, but instead, during our meeting, after she looked at my portfolio, she asked me what I would shoot that I thought would be interesting. I shared with her a project I thought would be interesting to me, and she said “okay, go out and shoot it, and bring it back and show it to me.” I think about that one from time to time, and maybe some day I’ll actually get started on it, but, sadly, she’s (may she rest in peace) not around to review it anymore. I have mapped it out in my head and I think it would be really cool to do, regardless of where it would end up getting published. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is right now.
I know that a lot of people work on long term projects as a way to tinker with an idea, or to do something that’s really fulfilling for them when, perhaps, their day-to-day assignments may not be as exciting as they would like them to be. For me, my work covers such a wide variety that I really do get excited all the time – seriously! I think if I did a CEO portrait every week, or covered a Congressional hearing or was in the Oval Office every week, it might get repetitive and rote. I know that the Associated Press rotates their team of staff photographers through the White House every few months, in part, for this reason. So, I suppose, my long term project is to stay diversified in what I do, because every day’s new assignment is an opportunity to learn something new, and approach the subject fresh, and I think that shows in the work.
CD: What advice would you give to a young professional about to embark into this career?
John Harrington: You can be a mediocre photographer and a great business person, and you will succeed for a very long time. If you are an amazingly talented photographer who sees the world in such a way that your pictures move people to act and as such, truly make a difference, yet you are a poor business person, you will fail very quickly. Isn’t it sad that if you don’t pay attention to the business aspects of being a photographer, your ability to make a difference and change the world will be diminished? I think about this a lot.
So, I would say that you should make sure that you earn more than it costs you to stay in business; always be able to say ‘no’ to bad deals (whether they be low pay, or rights grabs); and don’t be so focused on having the next greatest camera or lens or lighting setup, you don’t need it. I know we’re all, to one degree or another, “gear heads”, but really think about if you actually need it, or just want it. If you can’t prove to yourself you need it, then don’t get it. Rent it on the rare occasions that you do, and then buy it when you actually need it.